Monday, July 31, 2006

Slim Pickins Ain’t All That Bad

When I was young, I realized that I had two pairs of aunts and uncles that were related to each other both by blood and by marriage. Aunt #1 was married to Uncle #1 and Aunt #2 was married to Uncle #2. But Aunt #1 was the sister of Uncle #2. And Uncle #1 was the brother of Aunt #2. Nothing incestuous; it’s just that a brother and a sister married a sister and a brother.

I thought that was rather odd, so I asked my mother about it. (She was the sister to Aunt #1 and Uncle #2.) She said there was nothing strange about it at all. A one time, it was very common for brothers and sisters to marry among the same families. In the small country church that my mom grew up in, there were only two large families, the “Smiths” and the “Joneses”. Since each clan had several children, it wasn’t unusual for several of the Smith boys to pick out Jones girls to marry. Heck, there weren’t any other families to choose from.

They called it “slim pickins”. And the lack of slim pickins is one of the things driving up the divorce rate today.

When the pickins are slim, people tend to be content with what they have. And when things aren’t exactly the way they think they should be, they work together to make it right.

When a Jones boy looked across the one-room school house at the Smith girl, he knew that was pretty much as good as it was going to get. And ya know, she didn’t look half bad. He could picture little Miss Smith snuggled up to him at the bonfire after the hay ride on Saturday night. And she looked pretty good.

Soon Mr. Jones and Miss Smith were married. That’s when Mr. Jones realized that maybe he had painted a rather optimistic picture of the new Mrs. Jones. But it didn’t matter if she put on a few more pounds or left the cap off the toothpaste. She had a big plate of fried chicken ready for him when he came in from the fields. And she kept him warm at night while she soothed his aching muscles. And that kept him pretty happy.

Besides, pickins were slim. What else was he to do?

Today, the pickins aren’t so slim. A few strokes of the keys or clicks of a mouse and Myspace, eHarmony, or is all one needs to find an alternative. The choices are abundant; the temptations are inviting; the consequences are few.

Maybe if we went back to our slim pickins and realized what a good deal could be found right in our own back yard, we’d be less tempted to stray and more content with what we have.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why I Collect Postcards

Guys collect things. There’s just something about seeing a bunch of disorganized stuff out there that demands that some order be enforced. It’s human nature. It’s what makes us different. It’s what makes the “chaos theory” apply to geology, but not to the human soul.

Several years ago, I collected baseball cards. What a perfect hobby! There were hundreds of thousands of baseball cards out there and they were practically begging me to take them all in, place them in their proper place in an album, and give them a well-deserved home.

One thing in particular intrigued me about baseball card collecting: the hobby was somewhat finite. You could pick up the newest edition of Beckett and, within some reason, you knew exactly where you stood in your collection. You knew exactly what you had, you knew exactly what you needed, you knew exactly what it was worth.

Baseball card collecting was finite. Been there. Done that.

A couple of years ago, I discovered postcards. It was completely by accident. I was poking around on eBay and I stumbled on a postcard of the church I grew up in. A little more stumbling followed, and I was soon introduced to the hobby in a very serious way.

I discovered an interesting paradox. Postcards are at the same time finite and infinite. On the one hand, there is certainly some number which represents the total number of collectable postcards out there. On the other hand, nobody could ever claim that their collection of postcards — no matter how extensive — is “complete”.

Postcard collecting is one of the most satisfying hobbies I have ever found. Sometimes you find what you believe to be a real “gem”. And it is a gem simply because you say it is. Other times, you find a card that you believe to be “routine”, but a friend of yours will claim it to be the greatest find since the Dead Sea Scrolls! I have had both experiences, and they are equally enjoyable.

Every time you hold a postcard in your hand, you are holding a very, very private part of somebody’s life. Whatever was important to that person when they mailed that postcard is forever inscribed on that thin piece of fragile cardboard. Cherish it; it deserves honor and respect.

Just about every postcard contains two messages — the generic message of the picture on the card, and the very personal message of the person who sent it. That’s why I believe both the front and the back of the card are important. In them both exists not only the slice of life in the picture — but the slice of the person’s life who sent the card.

(Interestingly, postcard enthusiasts — deltiologists — say the “front” of the card is the side with the picture and the “back” of the card is the side with the address. Philatelists — stamp collectors — consider it the other way around; the “front” is the side with the stamp. But I digress...)

Most postcards can be picked up for a buck or two. I’ve never paid more than ten or fifteen dollars for one. But I’d never sell one of mine for a thousand dollars.

Collecting postcards as a hobby is not only inexpensive, it’s flexible. If you just buy a bunch of postcards, you don’t really have a collection; you just have a bunch of postcards. But most people don’t do that. They collect “themes”. I chose my hometown as my theme. But other people buy pictures of old buildings. Or bridges. Or trees. Or street scenes. Or churches. Or hospitals. The possibilities are infinite.

I encourage you to consider joining me in my pursuit of the perfect postcard collection. To learn about the hobby, go to your favorite Internet search engine, type in “postcard collecting” and start reading. Go to eBay and look for your favorite subject. You’re sure to find a postcard that can be uniquely yours.

You’ll soon discover, as I did, that collecting postcards is truly an infinite hobby.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Superman Can't Read Your Mind

Some of the greatest love lyrics are in the song Can You Read My Mind? It was from the original Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. This song is amazing because it can be studied on so many levels.

Can You Read My Mind?
by Leslie Bricusse and John Williams

Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is you do to me?

I don’t know who you are,
Just a friend from another star.
Here I am, like a kid out of school,
Holding hands with a god. I’m a fool.

Will you look at me, quivering,
Like a little girl shivering.
You can see right through me.

Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things I’m thinking of?
Wond’ring why you are
All the wonderful things you are.

You can fly! You belong to the sky.
You and I could belong to each other.

If you need a friend,
I’m the one to fly to.

If you need to be loved,
Here I am.
Read my mind.

Superman and Lois Lane are falling in love with each other, but they can’t let the other one know about it. Superman doesn’t want Lois to love him as Superman; that would be too dangerous. He wants her to love him as Clark Kent. Of course, Lois thinks that Clark is a bumbling fool. On the other hand, as a liberated woman who never had to rely on anybody else for help, she’s not sure that she wants to give her heart to anyone, let alone an alien with super powers that she doesn’t yet understand.

This is very early in Superman’s career. He’s not really even a super hero yet. Many people don’t understand him. Some people believe he may even be evil. And, although people know he’s strong and that he can fly, people don’t know what other powers he has. Some have even postulated that he can read minds.

Lois is trying to figure him out. She knows that he can fly. And she knows he has x-ray vision. (“You can see right through me.”) But she doesn’t know if he can read minds.

So, as a test, she sings this song to herself. (Actually, during the movie, the John Williams score plays softly in the background while Margo Kidder softly recites the words.) “Can you read my mind? Can you picture the things I’m thinking of? You can fly! You belong to the sky! But you and I belong to each other. If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to. Here I am... Read my mind.”

In her mind, she’s begging him to understand her. She smiles at him. He smiles back.

The irony, of course, is that he can’t read her mind. He has no idea what she’s dreaming of.

Why do we feel like we have to play games in relationships? Why can’t we just say what we feel? Why can’t Lois just declare her love for Superman? On the other hand, why is Superman so clueless that he has no idea what she’s thinking?

Such is a microcosm of so many relationships.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Government We Deserve

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once mused “Democracy is a system ensuring that the people are governed no better than they deserve.” He was right. The irony of democracy is that we don’t always elect the best person for the job. But we’ll usually elect the most appropriate.

One reason is because the best person for the job usually isn’t running for election. “Politicians” do a good job of getting elected because, by definition, that’s what they do for a living. But they are rarely the best citizens available. And they are not always the best law-makers. They are usually simply the last ones standing — the least of an abundance of evils.

The good news is that — over the long run — things have a way of working out. After a period of time, a consensus develops. It may not be the one that everybody agrees with, but one that everybody can live with.

And that’s the beauty of the democratic system. Properly done, no one person or ideology can exceed the generally accepted boundaries of common sense because enough other voices will eventually join in unison to act as a buffering agent. In the end, wisdom will prevail.

In the short run, however, the news isn’t always good. The wrong people are often elected. Bad laws are enacted. Corruption erupts. And consequences are suffered.

The next time you are lamenting over the loss of your candidate, or the stupidity of recent legislation, remember the words of Henry Longfellow during the darkest hours of the American Civil War:
  “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”

Things have a way of working themselves out.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Why We Vote

During the American Revolutionary war, a common battle cry was “No taxation without representation.” That was a relatively new concept at the time. The idea that the common man should have any right to self-governance was not yet universally accepted. It was generally accepted that the crown was the defender of the land and the insurer of common welfare. To even think that a regular citizen could have a say in matters such as taxation was literally an act of treason.

Over the years, wars have been fought and lives have been lost defending the right to self-governance. We now believe that the power to govern comes from the people, not the other way around.

The right to vote is the ultimate expression of that belief. And it is the duty of all good citizens to inform themselves of the issues and exercise that right.

Don’t be discouraged by recent reports of election scandals. Electronic voting and cyber-fast news delivery has only made evident what election officials have known for years. When millions of votes are cast, thousands of mistakes are made. New technology doesn’t prevent those mistakes - it only makes them more evident.

When elections results are close, there is a slight danger that such errors can actually affect the ultimate outcome. But those cases are very, very rare. Indeed, it is in those very close elections that fewer mistakes are made because election officials are even more diligent. And it is in those elections that your vote counts the most.

Don’t believe the lie that your vote doesn’t count. Learn the issues; know the candidates; do your homework. And then vote. The very future of democracy is counting on you to do your part.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Liberals and Zero-Sum Gain

A caller to a local radio talk show yesterday gave an interesting insight into the mind of a liberal. The call illustrated a common theme that runs through most liberals’ thought processes. Liberals believe in the almighty power of the zero-sum gain.

The caller complained that President Bush was not really serious about capturing Osama Bin-Laden. He claimed that the war in Iraq was taking too many resources away from the search for Bin-Laden. If only Bush had not been distracted by the situation in Iraq, he would have devoted all the resources of the u.s. armed forces to the search for Public Enemy Number 1. Obviously, Bush was much more interested in conquering Iraq than he was in fighting the true source of terror in the world.

In the caller’s mind, the success of one project obviously contributed to the failure of the other. Or put another way, the failure of one project is obviously the result of the dedication of resources to the wrong place.

In fact, the capture of one individual in a hostile, foreign environment is very much an art, not a science. Of course, when the person does not want to be found and is surrounded by resources that help him evade capture, that makes the job that much harder.

America is full of hundreds of criminals that have evaded capture. On our home turf, there are men that are walking the streets that are currently on the fbi’s most-wanted list. If we can’t find all of own home-grown criminals, is it such a sin that we’ve lost one man half-way around the world? Besides, he has been rendered virtually powerless by our anti-terrorist activities. Having him in custody (or dead) would be nice. But having him as a whimpering, sniveling coward ain’t half bad.

Liberals have an uncanny desire to celebrate defeat. Their notion is that no victory could possibly be good because it was certainly caused by bad news somewhere else.

They especially don’t like the war in Iraq, so it seems to get blamed for everything bad that happens. Bin-Laden hasn’t been captured because we’re fighting in Iraq. The government couldn’t respond to Hurricane Katrina because we’re fighting in Iraq. All the cops that President Clinton put on the streets are gone because we’re fighting in Iraq. Aids in running rampant without a cure because we’re fighting in Iraq. Every hangnail on every Democratic congressman is the direct result of the war in Iraq.

In fact, the liberals’ obsession with zero-sum gain is evident in most of their pet philosophies. Since they do not believe in the creation of wealth, they believe that every tax-break-for-the-rich (to them, it’s a hyphenated word) can only be achieved on the backs of the poor.

If I get medical treatment and pay for it myself, that denies some poor soul his due right of medical treatment. If the natural flow of the economy increases gasoline prices at the pump, it means that some oil executive is getting rich. If a college-educated white guy works hard and gets a promotion, that same job has been denied to a poor uneducated black single mother. If a car is built overseas, a Detroit union autoworker has lost his job.

And the list goes on. To a liberal, a butterfly flapping its wings in China is just the beginning of the polar ice caps melting

Whenever you hear a liberal complain about some evil injustice in society, just remember that they are incapable of understanding anything except the most simple of cause-and-effect relationships. The complexities and dynamics of a free society and a growing economy are too much for them to comprehend. It helps when you view their feeble attempts to rationalize life with that kind of perspective.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Ups and Downs of Fashion

Things go up. Things go down. And it’s inevitable that things will meet in the middle.

One day, I was picking up my son at school. I was sitting in the parking lot with the car running and the air conditioner on, undoubtedly irritating Al Gore by not remaining carbon-neutral for the day.

As I was waiting, a young high school couple walked by. They were both about 17 years old. She was a tiny waif; no more than 85 pounds soaking wet and probably hadn’t eaten anything larger than a cheese cube in the last ten days. He was a good looking clean-cut football-jock type. They would have been a great couple for prom king and queen.

But the odd part wasn’t about what they looked like. It was about what they were wearing. She was wearing tan capri pants and he was wearing dapper khaki shorts.

Some of you have already figured out the punch line, haven’t you?

His shorts were longer than her pants!

Ya know, it used to be that pants were long and tops were long and shorts were short. That’s how they got their names, after all. When I was growing up, our bell-bottom pants literally dragged on the ground. That was a status symbol; the quality of the pants could be measured by how well they were frayed on the bottom. A side-benefit: nobody could tell that you weren’t wearing any socks. Heck, nobody could tell that you weren’t wearing shoes.

Girls’ shorts were short and guys’ shorts were short. Life was simple. If your knees were showing, you were wearing shorts. Of course that also meant your thighs were showing, too. And the bottom of your pockets hung from underneath the frayed ends of your cutoffs. It was cool. It was the way it was supposed to be.

Once I was flipping channels and I stumbled on that sports classics network where they show games from other decades. An nba game from the 1970s was on. Those guys had long legs. And short, short shorts. No piercings. No tattoos. No green hair. Just a tank top and short, short shorts.

Oh, and high-top athletic shoes. But those are so retro, they’re actually in style again, aren’t they? Maybe soon I’ll see a 17-year old waif in capri pants, a tank top that doesn’t meet her belt, and high-top Keds. Probably with a pierced eyebrow.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Just Another Day on Mercury

Even though Mercury is one of our closest celestial neighbors, we know less about it than most other planets. It has inspired legends and mysteries through the ages and is only recently beginning to yield its secrets. Let’s look at this strange little world.

The ancients actually thought there were two “Mercuries”. They saw one that magically appeared in the sky just before sunset and another that magically arose in front of the sun just before sunrise. It didn’t occur to them that they were actually seeing the same planet on both sides of the sun at different times in the year.

Of course, a “planet” to them was nothing more than a point of light in the sky. That’s why Mercury was named for the wing-footed Roman messenger god. Most of the other planets simply “wandered” among the stars. By comparison, Mercury “scooted” — appearing here, then there, then not at all, then back again. Surely, Mercury must have seemed to be the swiftest and most perplexing of all the gods.

As planets go, Mercury is kinda an odd duck. A planet’s orbit is never exactly circular, but Mercury’s is more oblong than most of the inner planets. In its path around the sun, it gets as close as 25.6 million miles and as far away as 43.4 million miles. In the course of a Mercurian “year” — which is really only about 90 earth-days — the sun seems to slowly “pulsate” in the sky.

Such a close yet eccentric orbit causes another weird aberration: Mercury’s unusual day. For years, astronomers assumed that Mercury was “tidally locked” into the sun, i.e., the year and the day were the same length with the same side always facing the sun, much as the moon is tidally locked to the Earth. But we now know that Mercury’s day and year are in a strange 2:3 resonance. There are exactly three Mercury days for every two Mercury years.

That means that there are some areas on Mercury that would see the sun rise, then set, then rise again before traversing across the sky. This weird orbital and rotational ballet challenges our very thoughts of what is a “night” and a “day”.

Mercury is the only major planet without an atmosphere. Just like our moon, it is rocky and barren, pocketed with craters formed by millions of years of meteor hits and occasional collisions with small asteroids. With no protective atmosphere to shield it, it is literally lying naked to space.

Mercury sits up proud in space. Most planets tilt from their orbit somewhat — such a tilt is what gives the Earth our four seasons. But not Mercury. Its axial tilt is less than 0.01 degrees.

That means that Mercury hosts some of the hottest and the coldest surface temperatures in the solar system. At noon on the equator, the sun is directly overhead and stays in one place for so long that the surface is baked to 800 degrees F — hot enough to melt lead. But at the bottom of some craters near the poles of Mercury, there are surfaces that have never seen the light of the sun for millions of years. Temperatures there hover around minus 300 degrees F and never get any warmer.

For all the mysteries of this planet, only one spacecraft has ever seen it up close. Mariner 10 visited it in the mid-1970s. We haven’t been back since. Getting to Mercury is no easy task. Even though it’s one of the closest planets, it actually takes more rocket fuel to get there than it takes to go to Mars. That’s because once you get there, you have to contend with the gravity of the sun to slow the spacecraft into an acceptable path for scientific purposes. Otherwise, the craft would pass by Mercury in the blink of an eye.

The Messenger spacecraft is currently on its way to Mercury to unlock more of its secrets. It solves the whole orbital gravity problem by looping around the sun a few times, passing the Earth and Venus in a round-about path to Mercury to get it into the right orientation. After a couple of quick fly-bys to Mercury in 2008 and 2009, Messenger will settle into an orbit around Mercury in 2011.

When it gets there, who knows what strange stuff we’ll learn about this quirky planet?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My Kingdom for a C-Prompt

For the last few days, I have been reading about “Vista”, Microsoft’s new operating system that is due to be released the beginning of 2007 (or whenever). I’m especially intrigued by the minimum — that’s minimum — system requirements just to get this thing installed on a computer. Five hundred and twelve megabytes of random-access memory. That’s four times the memory that is on the 8-year old computer that I usually use at home.

Ah, my home computer. 128 meg of ram. 10 gig of hard drive space. A zip drive for backup. And Windows 98. State of the art when I purchased it. It’s as old as my refrigerator. Almost as old as my pickup truck. Only half the age of my house.

But in computer years, it’s ancient. As old as the hills on Grandma’s chest. Older than dirt. It’s so old, its serial number is negative. The last time I called Dell’s customer service, the guy on the phone just sorta chuckled when I told him my model number. I just hung up. He was no help.

So here I am with a moderately functional computer and an operating system that’s six versions behind. No upgrade path. No residual value. Scrap value of maybe a couple of bucks if you melt the silver out of the motherboard. But hey, it’s paid for.

While reading about Vista, I became more than painfully aware of the limitations of my computer. Last month, Microsoft officially stopped supporting my operating system. According to, almost 87% of all personal computers run on Windows xp. 2.7% run on my operating system. I have never been in such an ignominious minority. For a middle-aged white guy, that hurts.

A long time ago, I was a C-prompt guy. The computer waited patiently for me to tell it what to do. And then it did it. One thing at a time. I didn’t have to point at anything or drag anything. It didn’t connect to the Internet behind my back and download viruses. It just did what I told it to do.

Sometimes I long for those days. Sometimes I just want a computer to ask me what I want it to do. Then I can type in a command and it will do it for me. Sigh. It’ll probably never happen again in my lifetime.

I’m saving up for a new computer. By the time I can afford one of those new-fangled giga-ram computers, Vista will be three of four versions behind. It’ll take twenty gig of ram to load the operating system, which will probably be code-named “Leroy” or something like that.

If I had a kingdom, I would give it up for a computer that had a C-prompt and an operating system that could run on a meg of extended memory with a 32-meg hard drive. Then I’d type on a black screen with green letters in a fixed font.

And life would be good.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Exposing the Myth of the Problem with Outsourcing

If I had been in the labor force fifty years ago, I couldn’t do the job that I do now — mainly because my job didn’t exist fifty years ago. Heck, it didn’t exist ten years ago. I work in a very high-tech industry. Most of the people that I work with have jobs that didn’t exist even five years ago.

And it’s true the other way around, too. Fifty years ago, my mother was a telephone operator. That was back in the days when every small town had a lady named Sarah that would ask “Number, please?” when you picked up the phone. No need to dial; no need to remember esoteric codes or numbers. You just had to say, “Hey, Sarah, could you ring my wife at the office for me?” Sarah would know who you were, who your wife was, and what office she worked at.

My mom’s name isn’t Sarah, but you get the point.

Nobody cried when modern telephone technology replaced Sarah and my mother. And I won’t cry five years from now when my current job becomes obsolete. Because, just like my mom did, I’ll find another — a better — job.

And that’s the way economic progress works. Why is it that so many union bosses are just now getting it?

When a job is shipped overseas, it’s almost always for a good reason. Company owners don’t move a job overseas just because they think it sounds exotic. They do it because — for whatever reason — the lower price overcomes the slower delivery time, the increased transportation costs, and the increased logistics. That’s right. The price is so much lower that it’s actually worth the extra trouble.

You can make an argument that manufacturing workers over there are that much underpaid. Or that manufacturing workers over here are that much overpaid. It really doesn’t matter. The differential in the labor cost justified the change.

Who benefits? Here’s the little secret that not one union member wants you to hear. Everybody!  Yep, everybody benefits every time a job is moved offshore.

The manufacturing company benefits because the cost is lower. And that almost always means that the price to the consumer will be lower — slowing inflation and giving consumers more money in their pockets and more places to spend that money. Even if the manufacturing division of the company loses workers, the logistics division benefits because managers will be needed to track the production and deliver of the product in this country. The shipping industry benefits because they get to ship the product. And, of course, the foreign company benefits because they get the increased business.

Even the displaced worker benefits because he now gets an opportunity to get out of his buggy-whip manufacturing job and into one that is more suited for today’s service-oriented economy. The education system benefits because they get to train the new worker.

And the economy in general benefits because that worker will probably no longer be a member of a labor union — and lower union membership is good for the entire country.

I’ve been preaching these basic concepts of economics for years. It’s finally sinking in. A new study done by two Princeton economic professors was recently presented to a meeting of the Federal Reserve. The paper claims that outsourcing generally boosts wages in America — exactly they opposite of what the traditional labor-dominated liberal egg-heads would want you to believe.

Maybe somebody finally realized that the outsourcing movement has been going on for more than a decade and what do we have to show for it? Inflation under control and virtually full employment — even with an influx of millions of illegal workers in the country.

This is in an economy where your Dodge truck may be made Mexico and your Toyota Camry may be made in Kentucky. The global economy took over while the unions were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Please Pity the Poor Penny

The news is finally official. It had been suspected and rumored for a long time. Now the federal government has finally admitted.

It costs more than a penny to make a penny.

This is not good. In fact, it’s illegal. Congress has told the us Mint in no uncertain terms that it cannot spend more than the face value of a coin to produce it. It makes sense. If there was more than a penny of value in a penny, people could just buy them and melt them down and sell them for scrap. The Hungarians did something similar to that after World War ii when they papered their walls with worthless Hungarian paper money.

But it’s not hyperinflation that is the source of the penny’s problems. It’s the price of copper. There is now almost two cents of copper inside each penny, which is ironic because since 1982, a penny is mostly made of zinc; only about 2.4% of a penny is copper. Nevertheless, it still would cost more to melt a penny than it’s worth. But that may not always be true. The mint is going to have to think of a better plan.

Of course, many people think they have solved the problem. Just get rid of the stupid thing. Nobody has been able to actually buy anything with a penny for years. The only thing it’s good for is to make sales tax come out even. And nobody would complain if merchants would simply round everything to the nearest nickel. Or dime, for Heaven’s sake.

Because of that, many people have taken to throwing their spare pennies into dresser drawers, glass jars, and water fountains. Heck, the Jerry Lewis collection tray at the drive-through at McDonald’s is full of them. People seem to be in denial. They just don’t want to have anything to do with them.

And that creates a problem for the mint. At the same time that they cost too much to make, they have to make more of them because people are hoarding them. It’s hard being a government entity.

I take the exact opposite approach. At any given moment in time, there are between zero and four pennies in my pocket. And none at home. None. None on my dresser. No glass jar collecting spares. No Pringle’s can that weighs a ton from collecting worthless copper — I mean 97.6% zinc and 2.4% copper.

Nope. I use pennies the way they’re supposed to be used. When I make a purchase that ends in 97 cents, I pull two pennies out of my pocket and hand them to the clerk. If I don’t have two pennies, I get three back in change. No more than four pennies are ever — I mean ever — required for any cash transaction.

See? Pennies aren’t a problem. You don’t need a jar of them. You only need at most four.

Oh, yeah, the mint says that a nickel costs more than a nickel to produce, too. They have nothing to fear. I’m not hoarding those, either.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mike Brown, the Planet Hunter

The surname “Brown” is one of the most common in America. And “Michael” is one of the most common names for men. So it’s no surprise that there are a lot of “Michael Browns” out there.

Most of them live in somewhat obscurity. But simple statistics would indicate that a few of them would achieve fame. Wikipedia lists 25 different men named Michael Brown. The list includes politicians, athletes, musicians, and artists.

Two of them are scientists. And one is an astronomer. And Michael E. Brown the astronomer is the subject of today’s article.

Mike Brown discovered what may turn out to be our tenth planet. Or our twelfth, depending on how you count them. And perhaps many more.

Mr. Brown is a voracious planet hunter. He’s an associate professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and he spends a lot of his time peering at the heavens through Caltech’s telescopes in search of planets. In the last five years, he and his associates have been responsible for discovering no fewer than 10 new bodies of rock and ice hurling around our sun and eligible to be considered planets.

Three years ago, he discovered Sedna. Careful measurements later determined that Sedna was almost as large as Pluto. That news set the astronomical world on its ear.

Once astronomers started looking in earnest for new planets, our time-honored definition of planets started crumbling. It fell completely apart last year with the announcement of the discovery (by Brown and his team) of a new heavenly body, tentatively named. Xena. When the orbit and size of Xena were carefully plotted, yep, Xena is actually larger than Pluto.

Brown’s wife proved that a prophet is without honor in his own city. When he called to tell her the news that Xena was larger than Pluto, she said, “That’s nice, dear. Can you stop by the store and pick up a loaf of bread on your way home tonight?”

Mr. Brown estimates that there could be as many as fifty bodies out there that are big enough and “round” enough to be considered a planet. (Potato-shaped rocks need not apply for planet status.) Science textbooks are soon to be re-written on a scale that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

Rather than a tightly defined list of exactly nine planets, it now seems that the rocks and balls of gas that orbit our sun exist in somewhat of a continuous spectrum of sizes, shapes, and characteristics. Perhaps there is no limit to the variety of stuff that is out there. Things seem to be a lot more complicated than we first suspected.

For his efforts, Michael Brown was honored by Time Magazine, having been included on its list of “100 Influential People of 2006”. Good for him. I’m not a big fan of the magazine, but if they would ever like to recognize my superior blogging skills by including me on a similar list, I wouldn’t turn them down.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Shoeboxes of Data

After my formal computer education, one of my very first real job interviews was with a company that produced computer output on microfiche.

For the uninitiated, microfiche is kinda like microfilm, except that the media is a 4x6 card instead of a roll of film. It’s a medium that has all but disappeared in common business practices today. It has been regulated primarily to government archives and libraries. But in the early 1980s, it was definitely bleeding-edge technology.

Until then, the process of creating microfiche was strictly photographic and analog. The document was printed on regular paper and then the pages were photographed one page at a time to create the fiche. It wasn’t much better than actually standing at a photocopier and recreating the entire report by hand.

But this company was using a new-fangled technology called com or “Computer Output Microfiche”. In this process, the fiche was created digitally, directly from the data source — usually a computer tape. It was much faster and cheaper than the analog process and it could create an unlimited number of perfect images.

In my job interview, I was indoctrinated by two guys who were the microfiche disciples of the company. They extolled the virtues of microfiche over conventional means of storage and lookup. They made a convincing argument that disk storage was particularly expensive and ineffective. After all, it required expensive online disk drives and indexes and the energy and upkeep to keep them running. And horror of horrors, online disk storage required that people have those expensive crts at their desk. We can’t have that, can we?

Ah, yes, crts. Cathode Ray Tubes. Dumb terminals. Essentially, a tv screen with an oversized typewriter keyboard attached. That’s what people had before there were pcs on every office desk in the universe.

The compelling argument in favor of microfiche was that you didn’t need a $7,000 television set on every desk when you could have one $500 microfiche reader that would serve the entire office. Need to look up a customer’s account? No problem. Just walk over to the microfiche cabinet, find the appropriate card, insert it into the reader, search for the customer’s page, copy the information to a notepad, and walk back to your desk with the customer still on hold.

That was 1980. It took about five microfiche cards to hold about a meg of data.

I have a memory card on my keychain that holds about a gig of data. That’s a thousand meg or 5,000 microfiche cards — enough to fill ten shoeboxes.

For less than a thousand bucks, I can walk to my office supply store and pick up a one-terabyte external hard drive that will plug into the usb port on my laptop. I can tuck the entire drive into a corner of my briefcase. A terabyte is a thousand gig. A thousand keychain memory cards would fill about ten shoeboxes.

Conventional wisdom used to say that bigger was better. All we needed was more shoe boxes. And bigger shoeboxes. In the ultimate irony of technology, we have come to realize that bigger is smaller. And instead of a shoebox, all your really need is a shirt pocket.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Particularly Perplexing Pill

A few years ago, a friend of mine in the health care industry told me that a man my age needed to take an aspirin every day. Something about thinning blood and preventing heart attacks or something like that.

I have to say that it was a friend of mine that told me to take the aspirin because I never go to a doctor. Never. I can’t remember the last time I was at a doctor. I went to a Marcus Welby-type for a few years. Then he retired, as all good Marcus Welby-types do. I haven’t had a decent reason to visit a doctor since then.

You know all those commercials where they say things like “be sure to consult your doctor” for whatever? Well, I don’t have anybody to talk to.

Back to my story. So I was told by a friend to take an aspirin each day. So I did. No big deal. Later, I found out, oops, not just any aspirin. Think of your sensitive stomach! You want ulcers? It has to be children’s aspirin.

Really? I had been taking regular aspirin for several months and I didn’t notice any difference. No heart attack. No stroke. No ulcers. Just a half-empty aspirin bottle to show for my efforts. (That’s why I don’t like preventative medicine. How do you know when it works?)

Nope, that’s not good enough, said my friend-the-surrogate-doctor. It had to be a children’s aspirin. Or at least, it had to be one of those new mini-dose aspirins.

Mini-dose aspirins? Yeah, it seems that so many middle-aged men were being advised by their doctors (I guess they actually had doctors) to take children’s aspirin that there was a rush on the stuff. But a lot of guys didn’t like the idea of taking “children’s” aspirin.

So the marketing suits at the drug companies came up with a brilliant idea. Let’s make children’s aspirin but put it in a bottle that says “Mini Dose”. Same drug. Different label.

It was a hit. Soon millions of men in America were relieved of the embarrassment of buying the kid stuff. Now they could get real he-man drugs. Little bitty, tiny pills.

Okay, so I went to the store in search of the new drug. Hmmm... I guess this is it. But look at the size of the dose. 81 milligrams. Eighty-one? What’s the deal with that? Why not an even 80? Or 100? What’s the business about a silly milligram more?

Back to my friend with the question du jour. That’s just the way it is, I was told. A mini dose is 81 milligrams. Get used to it.

Never one to be satisfied with an answer like that, I had to do some digging. This is what I found out.

A standard aspirin is 325 milligrams. Back in the days before children’s aspirin, parents were instructed to split an adult aspirin. And then split it again. The kid was to receive one-fourth of the original pill.

When children’s aspirins came around, it seemed logical to introduce a pill that was exactly one-fourth the size of the adult aspirin. Well, technically, 325 divided by 4 is 81.25. I guess they figured the extra quarter milligram was taken up in the dust left behind on the kitchen cabinet when the pill was split. Whatever. The drug companies weren’t going to quibble a quarter milligram, but by golly, they were going to get that extra milligram in there.

So a children’s aspirin is 81 milligrams only because the drug companies are good at math and they like rounding.

When the adult mini doses appeared, it made sense to manufacture them in the same molds that were used for the children’s aspirins. So the 81 milligram adult mini aspirin was born.

Doesn’t matter. I take them every day. I still haven’t had a stroke or a heart attack. Or an ulcer. Or an upset stomach, headache, diarrhea, night sweats, fainting spells, or anything else. I still operate heavy machinery any time I feel like it.

And I still don’t have a doctor to call my own.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Vote to Win: A Bad Idea

The state of Arizona will consider on its November 7 ballot an idea which should be soundly defeated. It’s an idea that is so patently absurd that I’m surprised that I even have to write an article condemning it. But registered voters signed referendum petitions in sufficient numbers over the summer to get this stupid idea on the ballot. So the whole state is going to vote on it in the next general election.

The idea: Pay people to vote.

Actually, the plan is that each person who votes in either the state primary or general election will be given a chance to win a state-run lottery. The grand prize of the lottery (actually, the only prize) will be a cool one million dollars.

Proponents of the plan claim that their goal is to increase voter turnout by giving people something tangible as a reward for their vote. Apparently, these people don’t realize that participation in the democratic process is supposed to be a reward in itself.

Neither side of the debate has forgotten that federal law prohibits making or offering of any “expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote.” Fans of the law claim that the chance to win a million dollars has no value because it is just that — a “chance”, not actually any compensation.

Well, they’re wrong.

Any statistician, economist, accountant, or casino operator will tell you that the probability that an event will occur contains an inherent value. It is the value of the event multiplied by the likelihood that the event will occur.

I’ll use very round numbers for demonstrative purposes; the concept is the same. If four million people vote and receive a chance to win a million dollars, each chance is worth exactly twenty-five cents. To say that it doesn’t have a value mocks the intelligence of the voting public and denies basic fundamentals of mathematics.

That’s right, they would serve the same purpose if they just handed everybody a brand new Arizona-commemorative quarter at the polling place. And they’d probably make more people happy at the same time.

Even if this hare-brained idea could pass legal muster — which it can’t — I would still question the wisdom of attempting to use such methods to increase voter participation. That makes the assumption that increased voter participation is always a good idea.

In fact, if incentives such as this are enacted, all it will guarantee is that more people will vote that wouldn’t have voted otherwise. People will vote who haven’t studied the issues. They will vote without any idea of who the candidates are. Many will vote without even being able to read English. Many will turn in blank ballots or ballots that will have to be invalidated because they voted for more than one candidate for the same office. Some people will just make random marks on squares on the ballot. They'll do it because they have no interest in exercising their right to vote; they just want that million dollars.

In fact, I can envision the worst possible scenario. A couple of days before the election, the Democratic Party will release advertising with the following message. “Confused about who to vote for, but still want to be entered in the lottery? No problem. Just vote a straight Democratic ticket! That lets you vote for all the best candidates with only one stoke of the pen.”

The biggest problem is that the proposal incites the very people to vote who actually have the least valid reason for voting. The least educated, the least informed, and the those least interested in the democratic process are the ones that would be most drawn to this type of incentive. I don’t want to deny them of their right to vote; but I see no reason to offer them special incentives to do so.

Let’s hope that wisdom prevails among the voters of Arizona and this measure is defeated. It’s a bad idea.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Related to the Pope

A recent Associated Press article illustrated the intertwining of the generations, using actress Brooke Shields as an example. It seems that the lovely Ms. Shields is related to Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Niccolo Machiavelli, Hernando Cortes and at least five popes.

The point of the article is not that she is distinguished by her pedigree, rather that such a pedigree is completely normal. Anybody that lived more than a few hundred years ago probably had a half dozen or more children. As such, they undoubtedly have millions of ancestors today.

It is estimated that at least 80% of the population of England is directly descended from King Edward III, who reigned 700 years ago. Even six U.S. presidents can be counted among his descendants.

The Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan spread his influence — as well as his seed — almost as far as the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of his dna have shown up literally on all corners of the world.

So we don’t have to go all the way back to Adam and Eve to prove that we’re all “cousins”. But that’s not what struck me about the Brooke Shields article. I got hung up on the fact that she was descended from five popes.

When I first read that, my feeble Protestant mind started protesting. Waitaminnit. Aren’t popes actually people that received the ultimate promotion from priesthood? And isn’t a fundamental tenant of priesthood one of celibacy? And if one is celibate doesn’t that make it kinda hard for him to have, uhm, descendants? This certainly required further investigation.

I discovered that the Catholic Church considers celibacy to be a discipline, not a doctrine.   It wasn’t until around the year 800 that they decided that a celibate lifestyle was the only acceptable one for a priest. Prior to that, several popes had been family men in quite the literal sense. Even after that, there were a few popes that married and fathered children before they entered the priesthood. In those cases, they can rightfully claim descendents.

And there were a few popes that were just scoundrels. Popes that had illegitimate children (or at least illicit affairs) during their papacy include Pius II, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Clement VII, Benedict IX, and Pius IV.

It has been claimed that Clement II died while being treated for a venereal disease. And Paul III was said to have postponed his own ordination so he could continue his promiscuous lifestyle, spawning the Protestant Reformation in the process.

In fact, nepotism was so rampant with the pre-reformation popes that several of them were father-son combinations, handing down Peter’s keys to Heaven much like a father might hand down a dry-cleaning business to his son. Maybe it’s not ironic that the word “pope” is taken from the Latin “papa”, which means “father”.

So, Brooke, rejoice in your heritage. There’s a good chance that your family tree — as well as mine — includes a cacophonic mixture of royalty, papacy, mass murderers, world explorers, and shepherd boys. Mixing all that dna over the course of a few generations contributes to the fact that we are all unique in our own little way.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Pool Ain’t Cool

We’re coming up to the hottest part of the year. And once again I hear the same insane comments from people. No, I’m not talking about the stupid it’s-not-the-heat-it’s-the-humidity  comments. Those are bad enough. I’m talking about people that think the best way to beat the heat is to go swimming.

“It’s so hot today. All I want to do is get in the pool.”

Excuse me. The last   thing I want to do when it’s hot is to be in the sun. Outside.

I know where these people got their idea. It’s from the Depression. Back then, everybody was poor and nobody had air conditioning. The movie theatres put blocks of ice in front of electric fans to cool the audience. Yeah, I bet that was a treat. But that’s all they had.

Combine that with the drought, dust-bowl conditions, and record-breaking heat of the early 1930s and you can see that people were looking for whatever they could to stay cool.

So they slept on their porches. They slept on their roofs. They slept in the city parks.

And during the day, they cast off their inhibitions and went to the pool. After all, it was the coolest act in town.

Not any more. The most comfortable place in town right now is my living room. 72 degrees. Or whatever I want it to be. It doesn’t get any better than that.

When I drive by a swimming pool on the hottest day of the year, I see a lot of people having a lot of fun. Nothing wrong with that. They’re laughing and playing and splashing and generally having a good time. Good for them.

They’re also sweating, but they probably don’t know it because they’re too wet from being in the pool.

One thing they’re not  doing, however, is keeping cool. They’re hot, they’re just having too much fun to realize it. They’re playing in the sun, for crying out loud. Nobody is keeping cool by staying in the pool. They’re just keeping their mind off how hot it is.

So if you want to go to the pool on the hottest day of the year to have fun, go for it. God bless you; if that’s the kind of exercise you believe is fun, who am I to stop you? Just don’t tell me that you’re going there to “cool off”.

Next January, when it’s ten degrees below zero, I think I’ll suggest that we all go to an outdoor community campfire so we can stay warm. That makes as much sense as going swimming to stay cool.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Art of Telecommunications

Have you noticed that radio transmission towers have lately become more ... well, more interesting?

Before I go further, I had better define a couple of terms. Those tall skinny things supported by guy wires with their regulation faa blinking red lights are not radio antennas. Technically, they are towers. The antenna is just the thing that sits on a tower. Sometimes an antenna sits on the very top; sometimes they are hung on the side. Antennas come in all shapes and sizes. They may be long and slender, they may be spherical or oblong, they may be boxy, or they may be flat.

It’s the antenna’s job to actually transmit and receive radio signals — usually from another antenna far away. The only purpose of the tower is to hoist the antenna into the air to make it more effective.

And lately, it’s the antennas that are making the towers interesting.

Long ago, transmission towers were primarily the domain of commercial radio and television stations. They were impressive; tall and skinny. Well, that was about it. The taller they were, the skinnier they appeared to be. Straight up. About as aesthetic as a pencil lead.

A few years ago, more and more of them started sprouting on the landscape. And these newcomers were different. They had character.

Suddenly, the tops of the towers sprouted wings. Instead of one boring antenna on top, just about every imaginable antenna could be found. Many times, several different types were on the same tower. They jutted from the sides, they sprang from the top, they ringed the midsection.

The thing that made the difference, of course, was the sudden ubiquity of mobile telephones. Now that there are millions of wireless devices roaming around out there, thousands of new transmission towers are required to communicate with them.

Wireless phones have different transmission needs than a regular commercial radio. For one thing, the communication is two-way, unlike your car radio. It’s also full-duplex — which means, unlike a cb radio, the phone can send and receive at the same time.

And other “housekeeping” transmissions have to occur, which you may never be aware of. These are telemetry signals that help the network keep track of where the phones are and whether or not they are turned on and available to receive a call. They also tell a phone when to ring.

And mobile telephones are only part of the wireless communication revolution. All types of wireless devices demand similar communications networks. Blackberries, gps devices, satellite radio signal repeaters; even the computer that I’m typing this article on is plugged into a virtual wireless network and is in constant communication with a tower down the street from my house.

Of course, such complex communications require complex antennas. And in the process of building them, the communications companies inadvertently gave us new works of art. To make it even better, many of them have banded together to put multiple communications systems on one tower. The same structure may contain antennas belonging to Sprint, Verizon, Cingular, and a couple of other local carriers. Each antenna adds its own special flavor to the total picture that makes every transmission tower unique in its own way. And that makes it unique art — high in the rural sky.

The next time you’re zooming down the interstate, look up. There are some really neat high-tech patterns of wires, steel, and fiberglass up there, ready for your viewing pleasure. After you have enjoyed it, don’t forget to thank your wireless provider for the show.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

How Cars Move — And Why they Don’t

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and wondered why nobody is moving? I’m not talking about heavy traffic where you crawl down the interstate at 20 miles an hour. I mean where as far as you can see nobody  is moving.

Barring some sort of obstruction in the road — like a major accident or a giant meteor — how can that be possible? If everybody is pointing the same direction on the same road and wanting to get to the same place, how can everybody be sitting still?

This was the question on millions of minds last fall as they attempted to “race” out of New Orleans while Hurricane Katrina was barreling down upon them. Highway officials had reversed the traffic flow on the interstates so extra lanes were available to leave town. Everybody had plenty of warning and they were all essentially going the same direction, i.e., away  from the city. So why did they spend so many hours just sitting on the highway?

The same thing happened a few weeks later as Hurricane Rita took aim on Houston. Tempers flared, cars overheated and ran out of gas, but for the most part people found themselves just sitting on the highway for hours at a time.

There’s a simple answer for this. Although cars are generally built to move very fast, they do not maneuver very quickly when they are in close proximity to each other. The closer together that cars are, the more awkward they are and the slower they are driven. It doesn’t matter that they are all going the same direction. It really doesn’t even matter if there are a lot of merging lanes. A congested highway is a slow one.

It’s easiest to understand this concept if we put it in human terms. Let’s say we’re at a major league football game in a packed stadium filled with 75,000 fans. In the middle of the game, an announcement is made that everybody must leave. But half the exits are blocked, so everybody needs to leave via the exits on only one end of the field.

Oh, and there are a few restrictions around leaving. The most important restriction is that nobody can touch anybody else. No touching. At all. Period. You can’t brush against each other, you can’t touch elbows, you can’t even place your hand on somebody’s shoulder.

To make sure nobody touches each other, you should keep a reasonable distance from each other — at least three to eight feet. No closer than that. And when the person next to you moves, you should wait two to five seconds before you begin to move.

That’s what it would be like if we applied the rules of the road on a human scale. Under normal circumstances, a large stadium could be evacuated in half an hour or so. My guess is that if we all had to act like cars, it would take all day to get everybody out of there. And there’d be a lot of people just standing around for a long time.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Another Parent Trap

Every male who as ever seen Disney’s 1961 version of “The Parent Trap” has fallen in love with Hayley Mills. There’s no way you could get around it. Who wouldn’t fall for the girl with a big grin bouncing back and forth with her hands innocently behind her back as she sings “Let’s Get Together, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”?

Even girls would have to admit that Brian Keith would make a really cool dad in his country ranch house in northern California. I honestly believe that this is one of the most perfect live-action movies Disney ever created — with the possible exception of “Mary Poppins”.

So why in the name of Walt did the Disney studio believe that this gem needed to be re-made in 1998? Oh, I know. Let’s make money with a proven product. Yeah. Well, I’ll have no part of it. When the new version came out, I had absolutely no interest in it. Nothing was going to mess with my perfect image of Hayley’s Susan and Sharon.

Nothing, that is, until it showed up on cable tv and my son wanted me to watch it with him. No, no, no, don’t watch that  version! Let’s rent the real  one. You know ... Hayley!

Nope he wanted to watch this one. So I relented.

Actually, it wasn’t too bad. This one was a launching pad for Lindsay Lohan in the dual role of Hallie and Annie. This was a pre-teen Lindsay, when her hair was really red and her freckles actually frecked. She definitely showed promise as an actress. She even hummed a few bars of “Let’s Get Together” in homage to Hayley.

The most remarkable piece of acting was that she pulled off a proper British accent for Annie. In the original movie, Hayley’s British accent was never really explained. Heck, it just added to her charm. In the new version, Annie was raised in London by her mother while Hallie was raised in California by her father. Lindsay did a wonderful job of switching accents seamlessly.

And, of course, technical standards have improved greatly in the last 45 years. Whereas Susan and Sharon’s shots seemed rather contrived and stilted, Annie and Hallie interacted with each other in front of a panning, zooming, and tracking camera with perfect ease. It’s amazing what they can do with electrons in Hollywood these days.

But dangit. Some things just shouldn’t be messed with. Just ask the guys who remade “The Poseidon Adventure”. The ship only overturned but the movie sank quicker than the Titanic. And remember that shot-for-shot re-do of “Psycho”? Sicko.

So Lindsay pulled it off and went on her way to a very successful career in the process — re-working “Freaky Friday” and “The Love Bug” along the way.

But I really wish the suits in Hollywood would realize that some things — such as fond memories in an old man’s heart — are really just better left alone.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hopefully, This Will Satisfy the Purists

Being somewhat of a linguistic snob, I take notice when I am accused of puncturing the Queen’s English. So I was somewhat taken aback when I was privately chided for my use of the word “hopefully” in a recent article. I have chosen to come to my own defense.

In the purist sense, “hopefully” means “in a hopeful manner”. It is not to be used casually as a replacement for “I hope” or even the more passive and stuffy “it is hoped that”.

For example, it may be okay to say. “She gazed down the street hopefully, wondering if her lover would ever return.” But it’s not proper to say, “Hopefully, the math teacher will be sick and we won’t have to take that algebra test tomorrow.”

Well, that may be true. But I think that ignores the fact that occasionally we need small pauses in casual writing to allow the reader to grasp the true meaning of what’s being said. Actually, I just demonstrated it. And I just did it again.

Most people read faster than they should. When that happens, the words tend to overflow their comprehension buffer. Words mindlessly enter their consciousness without being adequately considered, studied, pondered, and comprehended.

When writing in a casual style, sometimes the author needs to plant little devices into the text to slow things down. Kinda like linguistic speed bumps. They aren’t exactly “noise” words because they actually provide some extra meaning to the sentence. But they require a little extra mental processing, which in turn slows the mind down. If these little gems weren’t sprinkled through the text, the reader would be, in effect, “over-driving his headlights”, venturing into uncharted territory without proper guidance.

For some reason, adverbs fit that bill very well. An occasional “actually”, “really”, and yes, even “hopefully” can be used in that fashion. Not only do they provide a little emphasis or clarification to the subject, but they provide a brief pause in the action — a time for the reader to reflect on what has just been said and to anticipate what is to come.

Of course, any device like that can be overused — especially in casual conversation. I once worked with a guy who began every sentence with “basically”. It didn’t provide any meaning or clarification. It didn’t enhance or give any credibility to what he was about to say. It was just a bad habit. A dreadful habit, actually.

In one meeting, several of us threatened to throw a stapler at him the next time he began a sentence with the word “basically”. He looked at us — quite terrified — and never said another word the entire meeting.

Actually, it was a very pleasant silence. Hopefully, he learned his lesson. Really, he had it coming.

Friday, June 30, 2006


The most insane of all Western customs that exists today is that stupid little practice known as “tipping”. Whoever first came up with this asinine idea should be paid minimum wage and then should be tied up and have unimaginable things happen to him as everybody passes by, bribing him for better service by waving dollar bills in his face.

Depending on the circumstance, the idea of tipping is either:
  a) to bribe a service provider to give you with superior service
  b) to reward a service provider for providing such service.

At least, that’s what they’d have you believe.

Okay, so why do I have to tip the doorman at a hotel for carrying my bags? Isn’t that his job? If I don’t tip him, what’s he gonna do? Drop them down the elevator shaft? Maybe the idea of the tip is so he provides service genteelly. Is that what I’m doing? Paying a buck a bag for a smile?

And why am I supposed to tip the skycap if he takes my bag at the curb, but not the ticket agent if he takes my bag at the gate? And what about the poor guy who’s actually in the hot sun or blizzard-like cold throwing my bag on that conveyor belt that leads to the belly of the plane? He probably works harder than all of us, but he doesn’t deserve a tip because he doesn’t get a chance to smile at me? That’s ridiculous.

Since I have a hard time figuring out tipping of bell staff and baggage handlers, I’ve taken to always giving them their tip as wadded up dollar bills. They always smile and cram their reward in their pocket, feigning humility as they salute me with a tip their hat. Hopefully, my dollar bill will get mixed up with everybody else’s and they won’t know if I tipped them one dollar a bag or five dollars a bag or twenty-five cents a bag.

See? The tipping system is so out of whack that I have resorted to crumpling George. I should be ashamed.

I never have to tip the front desk people at a hotel. They smile without it. They’re polite. Heck, they usually even speak English intelligibly, unlike any taxi driver I have ever met. But they don’t need a tip. They just do their job. Duh. Like they’re supposed to.

What about casino dealers? I win a big hand so they think they deserve part of it? Like they had something to do with my luck? Did they put their money at risk? No, they just happened to be there.

But the silliest of all is waiters and waitresses. I know, they’re in a strictly service job. You’re totally at their mercy. Or they’re totally at your mercy. Or something like that. But they’re supposed  to provide good service. They’re supposed  to smile. It’s part of their job. Why should they have to be bribed to do it?

The room service menu on a hotel I recently stayed at says that a 20% gratuity is added to every bill. 16.57% of that goes to the delivery person and the remainder goes to the kitchen and support staff. Where in the world they came up with that formula, I have no idea. But that doesn’t stop them from having their hand out when they deliver my meal, begging for more. It’s insane.

Why can’t the restaurant owners just pay the wait staff what they’re worth? Makes sense to me. What? That would increase the price of the meal? Would that put anybody out of business? The price of a $5.00 hamburger would go up to $6.00. Would anybody notice? Probably not. But I’d be so happy at the prospect of not having to figure out a tip that I might just eat there every day.

So here’s the punch line. Workers: Do your job. I don’t get tips for my job; why should you? Employers: Pay people what they’re worth; let the economics level the playing field for all.

It just makes sense.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

New Car Smell

I got my car washed today. Notice that I didn’t say I “washed” my car. I can’t remember the last time I “washed” my car.

I take it to one of those full-service car washes. At this one, you pull up and talk to a well-groomed college kid — five years from now, he’s going to be a vice president at some bank or maybe a top salesman in his district. You decline the special that they’re having today on detailing and hand-waxing, take a receipt from him, and turn over your car for the bath of a lifetime. It goes into a long tunnel where it is showered, scrubbed, polished, and rinsed.

It emerges from the other side, drenched but generally happy. Then about three or four more college boys pounce on it to give it a good rubdown. (In ten years, they will all be cpas working for Mr. Order-Taker on the other end of the tunnel. But today, hey, working at a car wash pays better than spending your summer as a life guard.)

When they are done, they signal that your car is ready. You press a few dollar bills in their hand — nobody knows why, but everybody has to do it. And then they ask you “the question”.

“What fragrance would you like today, sir?”

The answer, of course, is always the same.

“New car.”

If people would stop and consider what the “new car smell” really is, they probably wouldn’t be so excited about it. It’s actually a complex combination of volatile organic compounds including several varieties of glue, solvents, and paint. Mix that with some fumes from freshly-curing leather and vinyl, bake it with sunlight in an enclosed environment for several hours each day, and you have a delightful aroma — sure to please your senses and remind you of the first time you sat in the car and look down, noticing an odometer that registered fewer than ten miles. What a treat!

There’s a good reason why we treat the new car smell with the same sense of denial that forbids us from thinking about what’s really in a hot dog. The reason is because the sense of smell is one of the most effective triggers for memories — usually fond memories. The source or the toxicity of the smell are overcome by the association to the memory.

And the association with “freshness” is one of life’s greatest joys.

A friend of mine once told our department secretary that she smelled like a freshly-mopped floor. It was intended as a compliment and she took it as such. She knew that “freshness” was the true association with the smell. It didn’t matter if she smelled like Ajax or Mr. Clean or Glade. The fact was that she smelled “fresh”, and that’s all that mattered.

Anybody over the age of 40 remembers the fresh aroma of a page printed by a spirit duplicator. Sparkling white paper and fuzzy blue ink were the rule of the day when I was in school. It didn’t matter that your algebra test was printed with a 50/50 combination of isopropanol and methanol. The fact was, you knew everything was going to be okay because, well, the test smelled “fresh”.

People are making millions of dollars today because they have perfected car odorants that smell like volatile organic compounds and women’s perfume that smells like Lysol.

I think I could make a bundle if I could invent a spray that smelled like a ditto machine. Image the sniffing that would happen in my next meeting if I were to spray the agendas before I passed them out. We’d probably have to adjourn the meeting early, just so everybody could go back to their cubicles and inhale to their heart’s content in blissful privacy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Uh-Oh Second

In this world of micro-seconds, nano-seconds, and pico-seconds, it is becoming more and more important to measure increasingly smaller units of time.

I’ve heard that the smallest measurable unit of time is the time between when the light turns green and the guy behind you begins to honk.

I have determined that there is an even smaller, more definitive unit of time. I call it the “Uh-oh second”.

An uh-oh second is the unit of time between when answer “Yes” to the computer’s question “Are you sure” and you realize you weren’t. Uh-oh.

You just deleted a file that you didn’t intend to. You just exited a program. You just closed a session. You just completed an order. Your credit card just got billed. Whatever. You did it. It’s too late.

The uh-oh second can be applied to many other aspects of life. It’s the time between when you slam your car door shut and you realize your keys are in the seat. It’s the time between when find yourself pouring catsup on a hot dog and you realize that your son had asked for mustard.

It’s the time between when you complete drilling a 3/4 inch hole and you realize you should have drilled a 3/8 inch hole. It’s the time between when you introduce your new wife to your best friend and you realize you just used your ex-wife’s name.


I discovered a whole new genre of uh-oh seconds recently when I purchased a new shredder for my home office.

The office trash can is a wonderful invention. It’s a kinda purgatory for paper. It’s the place where paper goes when you don’t think you need it any more, but before you’re really ready to give it the official heave-ho to the landfill.

But privacy concerns — and a burning desire to experiment with a new source of mulch — lead me to replace my office trash can with a brand new Fellowes shredder. This is the one that they advertise on television with a bulldog confetti-making machine, making a mess of the office to the delight of the owner. “Good boy.”

What I learned very quickly about office shredders is that they are very unforgiving. Instant judgment.

Credit card solicitation. Rrrrip. Another credit card solicitation. Rrrrip. Home equity loan solicitation. Rrrrip. Mutual fund solicitation. Rrrrip. Credit card bill. Rrrrip.


The shortest measurable unit of time is the time between when you shred a bill that you need to pay and you realize you have no idea what in the heck that was that you just shredded, but it must have been something important.

Purgatory never looked so good.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Systematically Learning About “Systemic”

A few months ago, I had a problem with bugs in my bushes. So I made a trip to my friendly lawn and garden store and explained my problem. An associate at the store reached up and pulled off a bottle off the shelf. “You need a systemic pesticide. This will take care of it for you.”

I consider myself to be somewhat of a master of the English language. I try to use words like “ubiquitous” and “esoteric” in everyday conversation just to keep people around me on their toes. But I absolutely hate admitting in public that I have no idea what’s going on. So there was no way that I was going to admit that I didn’t know what “systemic” meant.

Assuming the store clerk knew more than I did, I bought the potion, sprayed it on my plants, and the bugs curled up and melted away. Oh well, who needs linguistics when chemistry works?

Some time after that, I heard some people talking at work about their bug problems at home. “What you need is a systemic pesticide”, I overheard. Hmmm... Well, I still don’t know what it means, but it must have something to do with killing bugs. So that’s good enough for me. I filed it away in my brain with the definition of other horticultural things and went on with my life.

A few days ago, I was listening to some political commentary on the radio. The analyst said that corruption in Congress was “systemic”.

Waitaminnit. What does pesticide have to do with Congress? Obviously, there is more to this word than I originally thought. This demands some investigation.

I discovered that “systemic” comes from the original Greek word that means “to combine” and is related to other English words such as “system” and “synergy”. They all have something to do with the bringing together of disparate things so that they act together. Makes sense.

In agriculture, a “systemic” pesticide is one that is absorbed into the sap of a plant or the bloodstream of an animal which is harmless to the host but which renders it toxic to invaders. As an extension, it can be applied to anything that is rampant throughout an organization to the degree that it affects the body in general — such as the usage when applied to corruption in Congress.

The Tower of Babel aside, human language is essentially an invention of, well, humans. As such, it is an imperfect creation, but one that is rich in history, tradition, and culture. English as we speak it today has only been around for a few hundred years. Deciphering the language of our Founding Fathers only 250 years ago can be somewhat of a challenge.

But that’s part of the charm of the language. There is a wonderful serendipity that results when we discover that the same word can be used in reference to pests in the garden as well as to pests in politics. And we can trace it all back to ancient Greece.

I hope I never learn everything there is to know about English. It would be a shame to think that I already know it all and that there are no more mysteries waiting to be unraveled.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Rocking with Ringo

Men deal with mid-life crises in many different ways. Some men have an affair. Some buy a new convertible. Some quit their job and go on a world-wide cruise.

I brought a drum set.

I’ve been a musician my entire life. I think I’ve played the piano ever since I could read. And I’ve been a percussionist for the last 15 years or so.

But I’ve always wanted to be a drummer. My best friend in high school was a drummer. I had hung around drummers all my life. But I remained safely ensconced in the confines of timpani, congas, tambourines, and xylophones. All the while, I yearned for the free-wheeling and controlled-frantic feeling that only a rock drummer can enjoy.

So, being of sound mind, proper financial means, and appropriate motivation, I brought a drum set, a few sticks and cymbals, and yes, a copy of “Drums for Dummies” — just to keep from totally embarrassing myself.

How does one practice drums without a band or a regular venue in which to perform? I bought a set of sound-isolating headphones with an extra-long cable. I plugged it into my stereo, tuned the radio to the local “oldies” station, and started rocking to the greatest hits of the 60s and 70s.

With a little practice, I got pretty good. Soon I was playing along with the Beatles, the Stones, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt; it really didn’t matter who or what was playing. If it came on the radio, I rocked along with it. There was something comforting — fulfilling — about finally living the dream of being a great rock musician, even if it was only in my own mind.

One night, I was playing along with the Beatles’ “Let it Be”. Suddenly, I was struck with a sense of awe that took me quite by surprise.

I was playing drums with Ringo Starr.

It was almost like Ringo was right in the room with me, smiling approvingly as he watched his protégé learn his trade, albeit late in life. I literally had to stop for a moment and, with my hands to my side, listen to the symphonic orchestration of Ringo’s percussion for the rest of the song.

Ringo had already established himself as a great drummer before he was with the Beatles. John and Paul actively sought him out to be in their band. They knew he was exactly what they needed to round out their little group of musicians. And with the addition of Ringo, the Fab Four from Liverpool spent the next seven years rewriting the history of rock music.

In his early days, he played with a four-piece kit rather than the standard five-piece — eschewing the middle tom-tom. Even though he is left-handed, he played with a right-hand setup, often leading with his left hand. These innovations gave Ringo’s style a distinctive sound as he influenced the development of early rock-and-roll drum music.

Ringo understood that the role of a drummer in a rock band is a supportive one. His playing was never in the forefront, was never ostentatious. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear him doing things in the background that are so creative and so unique that it is no wonder he remains one of the most influential rock drummers even today.

And that’s exactly what I do. As I’m playing along with the radio, I’ll play just about any song that happens to come along.

But when a Beatles song comes on, it’s more likely that I’ll just be listening. Listening for inspiration. Listening to learn.

Thank you, Ringo, for everything you’ve taught me.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Mayor Bloomberg and His Money

Michael Bloomberg is the mayor of New York City. And he must have really wanted the job, because five years ago he spent $74 million on his campaign to get it. His own money.

He must have liked the job once he got it, because last year he spent $85 million to get reelected. His own money. That comes to about $113 per vote.

Mr. Bloomberg founded one of the largest and most successful financial information companies in the world and has a personal wealth of more than five billion dollars. So he can afford to drop a few million here and there on extraneous ventures. He doesn’t need to work another day in his life. So he has decided to lead the largest city in the world’s last remaining super power. The city that sits in the middle of a red bulls-eye for every terrorist organization with a plane ticket or a stick of dynamite.

When studying elected leaders, we are often urged to “follow the money”. The prevailing wisdom says that politicians are usually beholden to the whims of those who put him in power. That makes sense when the major contributors are labor unions or fringe activist groups.

But what does it mean when the major contributor is the politician himself? It can’t be that he needs the job to support his ego; there are much easier (and cheaper) ways to have one’s ego stroked. It’s not just a power grab. In spite of his great potential power, he still regularly rides the subway to work. And it certainly isn’t because he needs the money. Refusing the traditional mayor’s salary, he receives a token one dollar per year in compensation.

Bloomberg seems to be one of those rare breeds who actually is a public servant because he feels like he needs to serve the public. He spent his own money to avoid the repressive campaign finance reform laws that limited his opponents. As a result, he doesn’t owe anybody anything. Nobody can buy him. Nobody can influence him. He can stand on his own principles and govern in a way that is most beneficial to the people who elected him.

New Yorkers must like him. The staunchly liberal city reelected this Republican by a 20% margin last year.

You gotta admire a guy that puts up 17% of his entire personal worth to get a thankless job in a city that should be suspicious of a rich corporate suit. My hat’s off to him.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Original Diet Coke

In 1963, the marketing guys at Coca-Cola had an interesting problem. Coke needed to respond to the Royal Crown Cola Company, who had come up with a fairly successful product known as Diet-Rite Cola. Today we take diet versions of cola for granted. But in the early 1960s, that was a revolutionary concept. All these bikini-clad girls were suddenly concerned about their figure, but they still wanted to drink their favorite beverage without guilt. Substituting cyclamate for sugar seemed like a good plan.

So the product development department at Coke got busy and developed what was essentially Coca-Cola without the sugar. All that was left was to put it in a bottle, stick it on the grocer’s shelves, and kick some Diet-Rite butt with a 300-pound gorilla marketing plan.

Watiaminnit, said the Suits. What are they going to call this stuff? They can’t just call it (gasp) “Diet Coke”. After all, they had spent millions of dollars protecting and preserving the honored, hallowed, cherished Coca-Cola brand. To dilute it by putting the word “diet” in front of it would be — well, it would be heresy! (Today, we would call it “brand extension” — think “Honey Nut Cheerios” — but that was a foreign concept at the time.)

So they turned to the market research department. Come up with a brand new name for this product. Some short, snappy, memorable. And do it quick! We can’t afford to have Diet-Rite eat one more fraction of a percent of our market share.

(Meanwhile, the execs at Pepsi were watching all this with a combination of amusement and blissful ignorance. It would be a couple of years before “Diet Pepsi” showed up on the market — with no apparent concern about diluting a trademarked name that had been playing second fiddle to Coke for years.)

The marketers at Coca-Cola huddled in their conference rooms in Atlanta, shuttering and shivering at the thought that they might make a marketing blunder. This was too important of a job for mere mortals. They must call upon the gods. The gods of ibm.

At the time, the ibm 1401 was a relatively new workhorse. It was the size of an average living room and had been introduced as a “business” computer, as opposed to a scientific computer. It was used to maintain customer records at banks and actuary tables at insurance companies. It was a 6-bit machine that contained a maximum 16Kb of data in its core memory. (For perspective, a typical two-page Word document is about 20Kb in size. Yes, folks, this computer could just about hold this entire article in memory.)

The folks in the it department were eager to find creative uses for their new toy. So they were overjoyed when the marketing department asked for their help. Could they use their brand new computer to generate a list of all possible four-letter word combinations?

The geeks put their slide rulers to work and their pencils to paper. Did they realize that would generate a list of 456,976 words to chose from? Back to the marketers. Hmmmm... Okay how about a list of four-letter words that contain only one vowel? Back to the slide rulers. Okay, that would be a list of only 192,000 words.

So the computer went to work. Disks whirred, tapes spun, lights dimmed. Green-bar paper spewed from high-speed printers. Long hours, late into the night.

Finally, the list was delivered. Marketing poured all over it, eliminating unpronounceable and potentially offensive words. Brows sweated. Pizza was consumed. Tensions rose.

Finally, they emerged with the winner. The new product was going to be named...


The creative guys got their hands on it. Okay, that could work because they could use the double-entendre of keeping “tabs” on the calories that are consumed. But the extra “B” was kinda in the way. A logo was invented with distinctive capitalization: “TaB”. Yeah, that’s it. Genius!

The rest, as they say, is history.

The geeks were left scratching their heads. Hey, we thought they wanted a four-letter word. If they had asked for a list of three-letter words — gee, that would have generated only (putting the slide-ruler to work again) 17,576 potential words to pick from. Why can’t anybody in the marketing department get their requirements established before they ask us to do all that work?

The ibm 1401 computer is now legendary with computer history buffs. Today, you probably have more computing power in your wristwatch than the machine that named Tab. In fact, doing the research for this article, I wrote a macro in Excel that duplicated the effort. It took me about three minutes to write and 3.5 seconds for my computer to execute.

But this represented one of the first successful joint ventures between a marketing department and a computer department and is thus worthy of historical note.

Of course, 40 years later, it still doesn’t do what marketing initially asks for. And marketing still can’t write user requirements that they can live with through the end of the project.

Some things never change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Buying Cred

Many years ago as a high school student, I gave piano lessons to my little brother for a few weeks. It was a big mistake. I’m surprised that we still talk to each other after all these years.

When it came time for my son to take piano lessons, I wisely opted myself out of candidates to be his teacher. There was no way that I was going to put my fatherhood on the line by trying to assume the role of piano teacher.

And the reason why? In my son’s eyes, I lacked credibility, or “cred” as it’s known on the street. (With the bro’s in the ’hood, why should one use five syllables when one will do?)

The funny thing about cred is that you first have to earn  it. Then, after it’s earned, it must be purchased  to be effective.

Consider this. If you have some problem — personal, financial, professional, whatever — the last person you should go to for advice is a close friend or family member. You need to go to someone who has earned  cred. That’s probably somebody with a degree, with appropriate experience or training, or somebody that is recognized as an expert in his field.

Even if you’re fortunate to have an expert in your family who has earned cred, they probably aren’t a good candidate to help you because of the other requirement — you have to buy  the cred from them. It doesn’t do any good to get advice from somebody unless you have some “skin” in the game. And the way you get “skin” is to pay for it.

Countries with socialized health care systems are learning this the hard way. When you have to pay for your medical advice, you tend to ration your need for it. The system balances itself naturally.

But when health care is free, the patient has nothing at risk. Even though the doctor has earned  his cred by going to medical school, the patient isn’t required to buy  his cred. With nothing to lose, there is nothing stopping the patient from consuming the product (in this case, health care advice) with aimless abandon. Soon the health care system is overloaded and would collapse if not for some sort of mandatory rationing.

Ask any doctor in Canada and they will tell you that their day is filled seeing perfectly healthy people that just want to have somebody to talk to. And nothing is stopping them from doing it because they have nothing to lose. They aren’t required to buy the “cred” from the doctor, so the system is imploding.

Back to the piano lessons. I may have earned my cred with my brother and my son, but neither of them had to buy it from me. So I was irrelevant and ineffective.

“Son, I think you should practice each hand separately on that song and then put them together only after you have mastered each one.”

“No, Dad. That’s not the right way to practice piano.”

See? No cred.

A couple of months later...

“Son, I’m glad to see that you are practicing your hands separately now.”

“Yeah, that’s the way my piano teacher told me to practice. It works so much better than trying to learn them both at the same time. I’ll put them together after I have learned them separate from each other.”

Same advice, different results. His piano teacher has cred. His dad — me — well, my cred might as well be crud for all it’s worth.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dixie Hockey

I woke up this morning to the news that the Stanley Cup finals for the National Hockey League ended last night. And the winner was Carolina.

My first thought — after I realized they were still playing hockey in the middle of June — was, Carolina has a hockey team?  Isn’t the land of Raleigh/Durham/Cary/Chapel Hill the domain of Duke and North Carolina and NC State? Do they even know what a puck is? Heck, do they even know what ice   is? Do they know how to play any sports down there that doesn’t include a 10-inch round orange ball or a football-shaped brown, uh, football?

And for Pete’s sake, they beat some Canadians. Not wimpy French “Canadiens”, as they’re known in Montreal. These are real manly Canadians: the Houston, er, I mean Edmonton Oilers.

Shoot, the Canadians practically invented  hockey. They actually understand the definition of “icing”. And they know how in the heck somebody can be “offsides” when there are men skating all over the place instead of starting each play lined up neatly on each side of the ball, uh, puck. I think the Canadians deserve to win just for being cerebral enough to understand the game.

But wait, there’s more. It turns out this wasn’t just a Dixie-vs-Cannuck fluke. Yessir, ladies and gentlemen. Last year’s Stanley Cup was won by ... (are you ready for this?) ... the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s right, they actually play hockey in Florida!

Sheesh, next you’ll be telling me that they play baseball in Montreal. Waitaminnit. That’s right. They actually used  to play baseball there, but nobody noticed. So they moved the team to Washington dc.

God bless America. At least Major League Baseball finally figured out what sport belongs where.

Now, if we can only convince the nfl to restore the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Baltimore Colts to their rightful locations.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Golden Rule of Business

Most of the work that I do is project-related. A project is identified, a team is assembled, and a team leader is chosen. Some projects last only a few days; some go on for months. They all overlap so I’m usually working on several projects at a time in various stages of completion.

One project team I was involved with had one very uncooperative team member. Although he claimed to be working on the project’s behalf, it was very obvious to me and to the other team members that he was much more interested in drawing attention to himself. I was the one on the team that had to work the closest with him — which meant that I had to put up with most of his foolishness and cover for many of his mistakes.

The project leader knew of my problems and was sympathetic to them. But in the best interests of getting the work done, we all agreed to do the best we could with what we had to work with — even if that meant putting up with the rudeness and incompetence of the most uncooperative team member I have ever worked with.

Toward the end of the project, the team leader caught me in a particularly “down” mood, pulled me aside, and said “Joe, it’s nice to have somebody like you on my team.”

What a breath of fresh air! With one statement, I learned what the project manager was actually looking for. And received a “stroke” to make me feel better.

As the project progressed, I watched the other team members’ behavior, compared it to my own, and put myself in the position of the project lead. I soon realized that the best behavior would be one that I would want if I were the leader of the team.

Obviously, “Mr. Uncooperative” didn’t understand that concept. I can’t believe that he would actually want himself on his team. Certainly, he wouldn’t want a whole team of people like himself. Nothing would ever get done because everybody would be fighting for attention for themselves.

When you were young, you probably learned something about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” With this project, I realized that the rule works in business as well as it does in personal relationships.

I learned that the best way to be a team member is to be the type of member that you would want to have on a team. I now measure my behavior on a team with the question, “Is that the type of behavior that I would want a member of my team to exhibit?” All I have to do is remove myself from the process, turn around and look at myself, and observe what I am doing.

If the Golden Rule of life is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, the ancillary Golden Rule of Business should be “Be the type of team member that you would like to have on your team.”